Record Your Piano! Pro Tips from Producer Andrija Tokic

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Engineer/producer Andrija Tokic operates his own Nashville studio, Bomb Shelter, but has also worked in other rooms around the country, making music with Benjamin Booker, Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff, and many more. As we went to press, he had a string band in his studio, and he said he mentioned that he was thinking about suggesting that they add keyboards to their project. “They might just think I’m crazy,” Tokic says. But they’d be well-advised to trust him: Tokic has a knack for beautifully integrating piano and organ into “guitar” records.

For example, on Booker’s celebrated debut, Tokic brought in organ player Mitch Jones and organ/Rhodes player Peter Keys, and Booker’s post-punk guitar sound blossomed into something even more soulful. We talked to Tokic about the differences between recording a pianist’s record and capturing a band with a keyboardist, and how to do either successfully in a small studio.

When you’re starting a piano session, are there micropones and placements that you often start with, as a point of departure to find the right sound for the project?

It depends on the particular piano. If you’re recording Rock ’n’ Roll, it’s not really supposed to necessarily be a big, lush piano sound—more something that cuts through a bunch of electric guitars. So the obvious thing is moving the mic closer to the hammers to more attack. Also, often I find that if I use older dynamic mics on a piano I get more isolation from the other instruments; I can really crank up the mic more and get the electronics in the signal chain to act more aggressively rather than relying on any EQ. If I’m up against a loud band, sometimes even just an old 57 or an older [Sennheiser] 421N is the right thing. And sometimes a little grit from the preamp can help the transients sort of pop through and brighten things up.

But if I’m looking for a huge, warm piano sound, I’m often using a Neumann SM69 in a Blumlein setup—set back above the sound hole but almost out of the piano—and it just works in that area where my grand piano happens to fit in my studio. I’m sure if [the piano] happened fit somewhere else in the room, I’d find a different spot for the mics.

So your solo piano sound is roomier than your band piano sound.

Yes, if there’s a solo piano, or just in the song they’re looking for a big, warm piano sound that’s got a full dynamic range that’s very even—that’s a big thing with pianos, not having an octave that’s twice as loud as the rest of the piano—then I’ll pull the mics away from the piano and get a far more open sound with a far more open technique.

How many mics do you typically put up on a piano session?

One or two. I’m sure there’s been times when I’ve tried something else, but I have a FET SM69 that just happens to work remarkably for big piano sounds. That’s a really high-end Neumann, a stereo mic, so you could call it two mics in a technical sense.

If you’re doing more of a lush piano thing in a small room, where do you place the piano in your studio?

In small rooms, I find having it near one wall can help by adding some early reflection to the sound. But you have to experiment to find the best placement, as sometimes reflections make the sound muddy. It’s really trial and error unless you have an acoustician sitting around doing tons of math for you.

First find what sounds good to your ears, and then see what works in your microphones. They’re totally different from your ears. For example, my upright piano is a Steinway, and after a couple of years of owning it, I was in a session with Langhorne Slim and The Law where the drummer and the piano player insisted on being right next to each other. I said, “Sure,” because the bottom line is, I want the musicians to play the way they’re used to playing and be as comfortable as possible.

So I put them right next to each other, but I was struggling trying to figure out how to mike the piano. Finally, I popped a panel off around the pianist’s knees and threw a mic up around his ankles and I pretty much have left the mic there ever since because I was blown away with how it sounded. That’s a spot where I never would have thought to put a mic, and now it’s my favorite place to mike this particular piano.

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